WOLPE PIANO MUSIC
DAVID HOLZMAN PLAYING THE “PASSACAGLIA”
A stunning video of David Holzman recording the Passacaglia for Bridge Records.
INTERVIEW WITH AUSTIN CLARKSON
REVIEWS OF “FOUR STUDIES”
Robert Carl, “’His ultimate goal was to challenge’:
An Interview with Austin Clarkson,” Fanfare, Nov-Dec (2011): 224-228.
Stefan Wolpe (1902–72) was one of the most original and uncompromising composers of the 20th century, yet it feels as though he has never received the recognition he deserves. Instead he has been an inspiration to an exceptionally wide range of highly original composers (think Cage, Feldman, Shapey, Carter, for starters) who recognized that his passionate take on European modernism was quite personal and different from the musical doctrines and dogmas that came across the Atlantic at midcentury. He’s a sort of “composer’s composer,” though without the hermetic overtones suggested by the term. Wolpe may well be just finding his time now, though, as he is postmodern in his refusal to choose between popular and esoteric traditions, multicultural in his embrace of Middle Eastern musical practice, and iconoclastic in his very personal adaptation of serialism, which avoids strict note-counting and concentrates on the meanings pitches and intervals project, dependent on and reflective of the space they inhabit.
Bridge Records and the Stefan Wolpe Society, Inc. have been collaborating for several years now on a series of recordings that are gradually shepherding the composer’s collected works into a cohesive discography. On the occasion of three recent releases (reviewed below), I spoke with Austin Clarkson (chair of the board for the society, editor of Wolpe’s music, and formerly professor of music at York University in Toronto) about the project and Wolpe’s continuing presence in musical discourse.
Q: Can you tell us about the origins of the Wolpe Society?
A: When Stefan Wolpe died in 1972 only a handful of his works were in print and he had signed several major works over to a small British publisher that went out of business. Wolpe died without a will and so it took years for his estate to be settled. Fortunately, a New York lawyer helped persuade Peer Southern (now Peermusic) to accept the Wolpe works. Ellis Freedman helped a group of friends of Wolpe, including Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Elliott Carter, Morton Feldman, and Leonard Meyer, to found the Wolpe Society. It was incorporated in 1981.
Q: What does it see as its mission? What are its major activities and projects?
A: The Wolpe Society is dedicated to publishing authoritative editions of Wolpe’s works, sponsoring performances and recordings by fine musicians, and encouraging scholars to study the music. To celebrate the 2002 centenary of Wolpe’s birth, the society assisted in organizing and funding festivals and symposia in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Berlin, Freiburg, Moscow, Toronto, and Berlin. Over 60 scores have been edited under the supervision of my colleague Thomas Phleps (Kassel) and myself and are now listed in the Peer catalog: peermusicclassical.com/composer/composerdetail.cfm?detail=wolpe
Q: How did its relationship with Bridge Records emerge, and what has been the nature of the collaboration between the society and the label?
A: Volume 1 of the Bridge Wolpe Collection was organized by the cellist Fred Sherry, who in the early 1990s was artistic director of the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society. He had invited Oliver Knussen to conduct and Peter Serkin to perform Wolpe’s Piece in Three Parts for piano and 16 instruments. The CD was filled out with performances of two pieces by Speculum Musicae. Volume 2 was a solo piano recording by David Holzman to celebrate Wolpe’s centenary. It won a Grammy nomination and Deems Taylor award for the liner notes. Together with the series of many other composers that Bridge releases, David and Becky Starobin continue to add to the Wolpe Collection, finding superb performers for the repertoire.
Q: What do you see as particularly important about Wolpe’s musical and artistic legacy?
A: Wolpe embodies a strain of modernism that has been given little attention in the dominant narrative of 20th-century music. He and Edgard Varèse were deeply influenced by the aesthetic ideas of Ferruccio Busoni, which brought them together in a close friendship in the 1950s and 1960s. Another bond was their interest in visual art, particularly the abstract expressionists. As a youth Wolpe spent time at the Bauhaus, sitting in on the lectures and studios of Paul Klee, Johannes Itten, and Oskar Schlemmer. It was there that he learned how to apply in practice the ideas of Busoni, which were very similar to those of the Bauhaus masters. Wolpe was thus one of the leading protagonists of the Busoni-Bauhaus ethos of socially committed modernism.
His approach to serialism was thus to organize music around the color, character, and drama of the various intervals rather than the more abstract properties of 12-tone series. He also had a most creative approach to time and space, developing a theory and practice of synthetic rhythms and spatial proportions.
As a passionate socialist, Wolpe made his politics known, sometimes at considerable risk. Thus he believed that the most advanced concert music should not be above including elements from vernacular musics (whether Berlin marching songs, Arabic dances, or New York jazz). His ultimate goal was to challenge musicians and the audience so that their minds would open and become more inclusive of all experience. After experiencing life under the Nazis and conservative musicians of all stripes, Wolpe was alert to any kind of provincialism.
Q: Wolpe has a stylistically diverse and geographically wide-ranging trajectory through his life and career that’s astonishing. How do you think this has affected his reception and evaluation since his death?
A: You are quite right to note the astonishing diversity of Wolpe’s oeuvre. At each phase of his career he wrote pieces of extreme virtuosity as well as simple music for amateurs. Furthermore, he submitted his music to a radical critique every 10 years or so, which is why there are such differences between his works of the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. Wolpe did not think or teach his students in terms of a concept of style. His music is stylistically so various that it is hard to categorize, which often led to criticism and rejection by his more decorous colleagues.
Q: Do you feel these factors may in fact be more in tune with contemporary cultural assumptions than was the case earlier?
A: Yes, indeed! Listeners today are now able to hear musics that are mash-ups of the old stylistic categories. They are now open to hear the passionate intensity, integrity, and brilliance of Wolpe’s music for what it is rather than in terms of some stylistic norms. His time has definitely come.
Q: Wolpe became best known to American listeners during the postwar era, when his very personal take on musical modernism led to a series of important works that were recorded by such labels as CRI and Nonesuch. At that time, the “late” Wolpe was the predominant one for most listeners. What do you feel are the particular strengths of the earlier works, and in particular the vocal music, which constitutes the majority of music on two of the releases under review?
A: Wolpe’s works of the ’60s were in response to the music he heard at Darmstadt, which he visited during the late ’50s and early ’60s. He created a synthesis between American abstract expressionism and European structuralism that was of great interest to such young composers and musicians as Charles Wuorinen, Mario Davidovsky, and Peter Serkin, and such groups as Continuum, the Group for Contemporary Music, and Speculum Musicae.
The earlier works have equivalent value for their own time and place, as Wolpe had a gift for absorbing the aesthetic ambience of his surroundings. In his youth in Berlin Wolpe was primarily a composer of works for voice, mainly ethical texts and spiritual poetry of iconic German authors—Hans Sachs, Hölderlin, Kleist, Rilke. Then he tried his hand at musical theater. After the Nazis took over and he found refuge in Palestine, he became fascinated by discovering in the Biblical prophets’ expressions of resistance to tyranny in the ancient Hebrew language that he was beginning to learn. He also set many Hebrew texts by modern socialist poets. Then in New York, he composed a cantata on the Hebrew prayer Yigdal, but also set a simple children’s story, Lazy Andy Ant, for a puppet theater. And while teaching at Black Mountain College and C. W. Post College he wrote songs for many theatrical productions. He tried his hand at every possible genre.
Q: Finally, could you speak some about your own history as a scholar and advocate of Wolpe’s life and work?
A: I first encountered Wolpe when I picked his first long-playing record out of a new releases bin in a Toronto record store in 1956. I had no way to comprehend what I heard, as I had only gotten as far as Bartók and Stravinsky. But when I was working on a Ph.D. in musicology at Columbia, my roommate said that his girlfriend was organizing a group of students to study Schoenberg with a composer who needed money. His name was Stefan Wolpe. As I was interested in contemporary music and the courses at Columbia were all about medieval and Renaissance music, I leaped at the chance. When I entered his living room, in a third-floor walkup on West 70th St, it was like entering an ongoing seismic event. Wolpe’s energy and enthusiasm, his penetrating ideas about music and life changed everything about what music could be. From that moment on I realized that I would have to become adequate to Wolpe’s ideas and to his music, which informed and inspired my career as a scholar and teacher. Advocating for Wolpe’s music has brought me in touch with fine musicians in many countries. Even on retirement from teaching I still find myself learning from Wolpe’s music. I am currently editing in collaboration with the pianist David Holzman the Four Studies on Basic Rows from 1936, in which Wolpe discovered his approach to serialism. Mr. Holzman made the first complete recording of the Four Studies on Bridge Volume 6.
WOLPE, Vol. 3. Excerpts from Dr. Einstein’s Address about Peace in the Atomic Era. 10 Early Songs. Arrangements of Yiddish Folk Songs. Songs from the Hebrew. Der faule Bauer mit seinen Hunden, Fabel von Hans Sachs. Epitaph • Patrick Mason (bar); Tony Arnold (sop); Leah Summers (mez); Ashraf Sewailam (bbar); Robert Shannon, Jacob Geenberg, Susan Grace (pn) • BRIDGE 9209 (65:36 )
WOLPE, Vol. 5. Lazy Andy Ant. Suite for Marthe Krueger. The Angel. 2 Songs for Baritone. O Captain! Songs of the Jewish Pioneers. To a Theatre New • Patrick Mason (nar); Zac Garcia (Andy); Wendy Buzby (Judge); Mathew Whitmore (Anteater); Quattro Mani; Rebecca Joel Loeb (ms); Matt Boehler (bbar); Ursula Oppens (pn) • BRIDGE 9308 (58:3607 )
WOLPE, Vol. 6. 4 Studies on Basic Rows. 3 Pieces for Youngsters. Lied, Anrede, Hymnus, Strophe zart Bewegung. 2 Pieces for Piano. Toccata in 3 Parts. Piano Studies, part 1, “Displaced Spaces.” Piano Studies, part 2. 2 Dances for Piano. Palestinian Notebook. Songs Without Words • David Holzman (pn) • BRIDGE 9344 (73:21)
Austin Clarkson has given a thorough and lucid introduction to Wolpe in the interview above, so I’ll leap into the review now, giving a few final thoughts at the end.
In the series (of six), Vol. 3 is the first disc in the header, with the Einstein setting. I will admit my only reservation about Wolpe up front, in that I feel that his vocal music, though of extremely high quality, and of a stimulating diversity, still does not have as remarkable a profile as so much of his instrumental, and in particular piano, music. Like so much music of a modernist cast from the earlier 20th century, its lyricism is usually not underpinned by as distinctive a harmonic practice, though I’ll readily admit it is often much more harmonically interesting and approachable than much of his contemporaries’ vocal works. For the record, and so readers may know my judgmental filter, I feel similarly about the vocal music of Wolpe’s teacher Webern. I also feel Wolpe’s rigorous experimental impulse came most to the fore in instrumental forms, whose abstraction paradoxically pushed him to greater original, personal expression.
Having said that, these songs and cycles always have clear ideas and a passionate impulse. The Ten Early Songs of 1920 are knotty expressionist gems, redolent of both cabaret and Secession salon. The 1925 Yiddish folk-song arrangements are folkloristic and populist in contrast; one can hardly believe they come from the same artist as the Early Songs. The 1926 Hans Sachs setting is mordant and acidic in the spirit of early Hindemith and classical Weill. The 1938 Epitaph is a pithy work whose concentration, lyricism, and harmonies are somewhat Stravinskian, and surprisingly seems a presage of Sondheim. The 1950 Einstein address setting is a passionate political piece; Wolpe’s intense, economical, and rigorous language suggests a strict moral probity in line with the subject and author of the text. I particularly like the way it fades away on poignant repetitions of the phrase “give and take.” For me the standout of the set is the 1938–54 Songs from the Hebrew (in both English and Hebrew), which evidences an impressive stylistic range, yet also feels consistent as a set.
Vol. 5 is also predominantly vocal, though with an even greater diversity of media and traditions in play. And overall I find it the most persuasive rebuttal to my remarks above about the composer’s vocal music. It begins with a sweet and witty puppet theater work on a children’s story by Helen Fletcher, Lazy Andy Ant (1947). It’s a parable about how the seemingly “useless” artist is in fact the most valuable member of any community, because s/he can think outside the box. Wolpe shows himself entirely capable of writing accessible tonal music for young listeners that doesn’t pander or condescend. The other vocal pieces [Oh Captain!, text by Whitman (1946), The Angel (Blake, 1959), and To a Theatre New (Winthrop Palmer, 1961)] benefit from the highly strophic nature of their texts, which engender clear musical ideas and tight forms. I found myself captivated by the last, which is whimsical and poignant, again a tribute to the “fantastic” power of art. Only the 1940 Suite for Marthe Krueger, a dance score (and the only instrumental work on the program), previously thought lost until a recent rediscovery, struck me as overlong and trying too hard in its heated rhetoric.
But the highlight for me of this set of releases is David Holzman’s piano recital (Vol. 6). It’s in fact the second of what is probably a continuing subseries within the overall set, and it’s a doozie. I was frankly stunned by his playing in the earlier disc, and Holzman continues to live up to the standard he set there. He has a spirit very much in tune with Wolpe’s: fierce, passionate, energetic, steely. The sheer intensity and clarity of his playing has a bracing, cleansing effect on the listener; you’re invigorated, affirmed by the experience.
There’s the usual diversity of Wolpean voices in the piano collection. Some works have sweet lyricism and are largely tonal, such as the Two Pieces. Others refer to popular styles, such as the blues and tango of the Two Dances, the Semitic flavor of the Palestinian Notebook, and the neo-Broadway of the 1959 Songs Without Words (the last has a title of “Lively. Why Not?”). But three works stand out as extraordinary: the 1941 Toccata, the 1935–36 Four Studies on Basic Rows, and the 1946–48 Studies, parts 1 and 2. The first is a sort of neoclassicism balanced with an angular expressionist perspective, ending with a masterly double fugue. The second is one of the remarkable piano pieces of the 20th century, its movements culminating in a passacaglia that is magisterial. Wolpe’s take on serialism was always personal and heterodox, and one of the marvelous things about this music is how economical, direct, and clear its ideas always are. Frankly I find it more satisfying than most of Schoenberg’s 12-tone works, and that’s I think in part because Wolpe was always concerned with intervals, not just pitches, in what elements of the music he wanted to emphasize and project.
The studies from the late 1940s are even more original. Compact to a fault (most are under a minute), they consist of just two lines in a sort of bobbing and weaving boxing match. The rhythmic language is unlike what had ever been heard before, and I think it’s actually quite different from most of the late modernist work (in particular New York “Uptown” music of the ’60s and ’70s) that it influenced. There’s a strange sense of interruption, of shouting, stammering dialogues embedded in these little pieces. The booklet notes that Wolpe was a favored teacher of jazzers in the period, and you can see why. There’s a personal, prismatic rhythmic sense, a type of flow that’s closer to late bop and free jazz than to European models of the era. It feels closer to Thelonious than Arnold.
Overall this is an enormously satisfying set. Don’t let any carps of mine divert you from buying these. If you want only one to start, choose the Holzman. If you want to explore the vocal music, I think the set starting with Lazy Andy Ant is the way (and don’t be diverted by the rather goofy but sweet cartoon art on the cover). But also, even though they have come out earlier, be aware of the other three discs in the set (so far).
Vol. 2 (Bridge 9116) is the earlier Holzman piano recital. Vol. 4 (Bridge 9215) is a collection of music mostly for winds, including among its featured performers Heinz Holliger playing the Oboe Sonata. And Vol. 1 (Bridge 9043) includes an extraordinary performance with Peter Serkin and Oliver Knussen of the 1961 Piece for Piano and 16 Instruments in Three Parts, one of the most persuasive documents about what was so fiercely original about Wolpe’s vision.
Wolpe is perhaps one of the greatest and most recent manifestations of a noble Central/Northern European tradition, the composer who is resolutely abstract in his musical ideology, yet authentically passionate. Add to this his distinct strands of populism, leftist politics, and cultural tolerance, and we have one of the great originals of the century. If you don’t know his work already, now is the time.
— Robert Carl
Scott Noriega, Review of Bridge 9344
Fanfare Nov-Dec (2011): 228
“Four Studies on Basic Rows,” “3 Pieces for Youngsters,” “Lied, Anrede, Hymnus, Strophe zarteste Bewegung,” “2 Piano Pieces: Pastorale, Con fuoco,” “Toccata in 3 Parts,” “Piano Studies, part I,” “Displaced Spaces. Piano Studies, part II,” “2 Dances: Blues, Tango,” “Palestinian Notebook,” “Songs Without Words.” (73:21)
For those who know the music of Stefan Wolpe, perhaps the very first adjective that they might use to describe his music is complex. And in listening to the two major works on this recital, the Four Studies on Basic Rows and the Toccata, one would probably be spot-on with one’s description. And though these works may be complex atonal creations, they are made more palatable by their intrinsic musicality and by David Holzman’s obvious affinity for this challenging music. His account of the Toccata in particular is masterly in how the three parts feed off of each other, leading from the simpler textures of the opening movement to the highly expressive middle section—titled “Too Much Suffering in the World”—to the virtuoso, quasi-jazzy double fugue that concludes the piece. Compared to Peter Serkin’s equally masterly approach, Holzman’s account seems a little less radical in its more restrained, almost Baroque-toccata inspiration, whereas Serkin seems spiky and pointillistic in comparison; he seems to play off of the piece’s modernist tendencies.
The most elaborate of the studies, the Passacaglia, is a highlight of this recital. Holzman’s obvious engagement with the piece’s underlying developmental structures, encompassing the sound worlds of the previous three studies as a sort of climax of ideas for this group of works, in addition to his understanding of its concentrated expressiveness, make this music quite enjoyable in its best moments. His playing lends it the “timeless character” that Holzman and Austin Clarkson describe in their shared program notes.
Interestingly, the rest of the pieces on the recital are much more subdued in comparison to these former works. They are all under 3:30 in timing and display the composer’s other interests: jazz (Blues, Tango, Songs Without Words), his Jewish heritage (the four movements of the Palestinian Notebook), and “simpler musics” (Lied, Anrede, Hymnus, Strophe zarteste Bewegung, the Three Pieces for Youngsters) as he described some of these pieces himself. Holzman relates in his booklet notes that after a day and a half of recording most of the Four Studies, on the suggestion of his editor Matthew Packwood he turned to some of the shorter works on this recital. He relates that a smile began to grow on his face as the “physical and intellectual experience” of the more complex music made this simpler music more magical. Perhaps that is one of the keys to this recital: its need to show how one sound world may be used to understand another. Though Wolpe will never be a household name, if this is the kind of music that interests one, then Holzman provides a very fine guide through this mostly thorny and severe, though sometimes playful, world.
International Record Review, May, 2011:62-63
the 'Passacaglia' on an all-interval row which ranks among the high points of twentieth-century pianism and had far- reaching consequences for composers as diverse as Elliott Carter and George Russell. It remains Wolpe's most recorded piano piece, yet to have it in context is rare and Holzman's account * drawing its four distinct sections into an inexorably cumulative whole - makes it a fitting conclusion to his powerful rendering of the whole set and a memorable experience which one would be unlikely to encounter in concert.
Music Web International, June 11, 2011
Particularly noteworthy is the first complete recording of Wolpe's huge Four Studies on Basic Rows (1935-36). It occupies almost half this CD and includes the composer's most frequently-recorded piano piece, the 'Passacaglia' [tr.4], which is in turn the longest single movement here at getting on for a quarter of an hour. . . . So you're getting a mixture, a taster, of Wolpe's output for the instrument. You're also getting it played by undeniably the greatest interpreter of Wolpe's keyboard music alive today.